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Hello, readers! Welcome to my new site. I know it looks pretty much the same as the old one, and I also know that it’s been a while since my last post. I’m working on some new material now, so stay tuned!

Categories
Colombia

Salento: Not to be Overlooked

Salento, Colombia is a peaceful town in the Coffee Triangle of Colombia.

Enjoy the town’s serenity, cuisine, and artisan culture.

 

Most people come to Salento, a small town nestled in the Quindio region of the coffee triangle, to engage in the activities beyond its tranquil streets, such as visiting coffee farms or trekking the Cocora Valley. However, the historic cowboy town itself is an alluring stopping ground due to its 360 views of Los Nevados mountain range, its relaxed atmosphere, colorful colonial architecture, and talented artisans. The poncho and cowboy hat wearing locals move about with a practiced calm and always have a genuine, slow smile for the many foreigners who visit. The main square, complete with church, supermarket and police station, is flanked on all four sides by restaurants and filled in the middle with food trucks serving up traditional paisa style cuisine and the regional specialty, trout or trucha. The constant slightly overcast skies and high altitude near the mountains make for mild and cool temperatures in the damp air. The two spots that made me wish I had more time to spend in Salento were my hostel, La Serrana, and a little café called Brunch.

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the plaza when we first arrived
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the jeep stand

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Laura and me crouched in the back of our first jeep
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food stands in the plaza
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bandeja paisa- traditional gigantic plate of meats and starches

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side street off the plaza- notice the cowboy on the right

La Serrana

I met German man in Bogota who had been backpacking for nearly two years, and he referred me to this hostel, where, he said, you can cook using ingredients from La Serrana’s very own garden. The 20 hectares of lush farmland where the hostel makes its home is about a half an hour walk outside of the city, or a ten minute, 600 peso-per-person old army jeep ride, down a dirt road past damp farms and healthy looking cattle. La Serrana is a home away from home. Its property perches prettily among the emerald plains and hills of Los Nevados mountain range. With a family style breakfast and dinner, dim mood lighting and comfortable leather chairs and sofas, visitors to La Serrana really get to experience a taste of the Colombian hacienda lifestyle.

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main building

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the dining room
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an outdoor hang out near the fire pit

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the hostel’s garden

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delicious breakfast
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so homey

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While the breakfast was delicious and the grounds were incredible, my favorite part about staying there was a stray dog that roamed around the farm. I named him Randall after he accompanied me on a few walks into town, only stopping to terrorize the cows. I don’t know where this dog came from, but my new friend Randall escorted me many times for my entire walk from the hostel to wherever I had to go in town, occasionally linking up with me when I popped in and out of stores or restaurants.

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Me and Randall, a stray who hung around the hostel

 

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following us into town

Brunch

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If you’ve been reading, you know that I am an adventurous eater who likes to sample the local flavor when I travel. But that doesn’t mean I’ll turn down a burger and a peanut butter filled brownie. Brunch is also a traveler’s home away from home, offering guests (usually outsiders) an American diner-style menu, complete with pancakes and omelets, tuna melts and turkey burgers. The small restaurant is owned and run by an American (I think…could be Canadian, I suppose) gentleman who, legend has it, still does not speak Spanish. His manager claims to be from Bogota, yet speaks English like a Californian, and is the most gracious host, quickly scrambling to bring cucumber water to the table, answer any questions about the menu, or let us sample some of the restaurant’s homemade peanut butter. After Laura ordered the most delicious black bean burger ever and I ordered the teriyaki pineapple burger—complete with lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and fries— I set about reading the writing on the walls and picking up a deck of cards from the game pile to play a little Spit with Laura. We were barely into the first round when our food came.

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wall notes

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nice manager feeding us homemade peanut butter- i’m almost done with the jar I brought home

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Needless to say, everything was delicious. We came back as many times as our stomachs would allow, and to help us digest so we could order a brownie a la mode, we vegged on the couches and bean bag chairs in the movie room in the back, taking our pick of 1000 movies on a USB.

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watching ‘a knight’s tale’

by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Where The Caffeine Grows…

Touring El Ocaso Finca in Salento, Colombia to see how coffee is made.

See how Salento’s mountain climate is perfect to make the smoothest coffee in the world.

 

After two months of accepting instant coffee and canned milk as my morning fate, I was thrilled to finally make it to Colombia to get a proper caffeine fix in. To see how my favorite addiction is made, I decided to take the scenic 40-minute walk through mountain jungle from my hostel La Serrana in Salento to check out El Ocaso Finca. While there are other fincas and plantations close by, this one was highly recommended. The coffee produced here is only organic and is UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C Association certified, focusing on their productivity, environmental practices, and ethical codes, respectively.

view on the walk over
view on the walk over
El Ocaso Finca
El Ocaso Finca

When I arrived, I was delighted to see a bustling house amid the gorgeous 23 hectares of plantation, 12 of which are used for coffee. Our small group led by a Spanish-speaking guide began the tour by showing us the crops and explaining the seriously committed process that goes into your morning cup of joe. We picked ripe red berries from the bush and broke them open with our fingers to reveal two coffee beans that were sweet to suck on.

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not yet ripe

 

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Normally, the pickers do the first part of this job, emptying their 80-120 kilogram sacks at noon and the end of the day into the “hopper”, which searches the haul for leaves, sticks or green cherries and sends the good bits down to the “de-pulper.” This 100-year-old machine finishes the job by squeezing the coffee beans from the cherries and separating the pulp from the beans, a process called “wet-milling”. But I digress.

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To even get the coffee cherries requires a lot of time and work. The seed must be planted in sand for 30 days until a bulb has formed. Once it has, the crop will continue to grow for an additional six months before being moved to soil and planted in rows, one meter apart from each plant and two meters from its neighboring rows. From here, it takes 18 months for the plant to grow beautiful white flowers with five petals, which fall off after three days to make room for the coffee fruit to grow over the span of nine months or more. While the fruit starts green, it changes to red or yellow as it ripens. Once the fruit has grown, it will produce for five years, twice a year, from March to May and September to November, the cherries being picked whenever they are ready.

the plants in sand
the plants in sand

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So what happens when you have those beans? The good beans are cleaned and stripped of nearly all outer organic matter and put into big machines to dry, or sometimes, during low harvest seasons, the coffee is taken to the canopy to sun dry. Once it is dry, the handlers check it once more for defective beans, which they use for domestic brews or instant coffees (the good stuff gets exported). Then the dried beans are mashed up with a muddler to remove their skin and then toasted for 70 minutes, constantly being stirred so that they don’t burn. You can tell a lower quality coffee from a higher quality because the bad stuff is darker from being burnt.

dried beans on the table- they called them "almonds"
dried beans on the table- they called them “almonds”

 

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big bad muddler

 

stirring the beans over heat
stirring the beans over heat
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality
from bean to grind- notice the one closest to the right is darker, and therefore, of lower quality

Now this is the part of the tour I had been waiting for- a chance to sample the coffee. We ground up the beans in a hand grinder, the thick aroma of fresh coffee beans filling my nostrils. Our tour guide put the ground up coffee into a sieve that rested over a silver coffee pot that looked more like a pitcher to me, and I volunteered to pour the hot water, slowly, around the top circle of the strainer, until the water seeped sultrily through the grounds. The coffee was so mild and tasty that I didn’t even feel the need to bite back at the bitterness with sugar or milk. The cup of coffee that I drank at El Ocaso Finca was the perfect example of how Colombia, while only third after Brazil and Vietnam in coffee production, is the leading producer of the smoothest coffees.

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by Rebecca Bellan

Categories
Colombia

Mystical Cocora Valley

Feel suspended in time and space in the magical Cocora Valley in Colombia.

Walk amongst a garden of the tallest palm trees in the world outside of Salento, Colombia.

The old war jeeps that serve as taxis in Salento, Colombia can comfortably seat eight passengers, with two up front next to the driver and six facing each other in the bumpy back. The day I decided to see the Valle de Cocora, a valley that is located in the highest of the three branches of the Andean mountains and is home to Colombia’s national tree, the Quindio wax palm, we somehow managed to fit thirteen passengers into the jeep- four squeezed together in the back, three hanging off the back, and two in the front with the driver.

The 45-minute drive under a threateningly overcast sky was scenic to say the least. I smiled the whole car ride to myself as the chilly, moist air rushed at my face through the plastic windows of the jeep. I couldn’t believe my eyes as they scanned rolling jade plantations, feasting black and white cows, trees that I had never seen before, and a clear river running over mossy rocks.

The stopping ground before the Cocora Valley is a small town in and of itself, with shops, restaurants, hotels and horses for hire.

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Originally, my intention was to simply see the valley for the tall palm trees and then take a jeep back, a short excursion. Most people do the Cocora Valley trek, which I ended up doing, which lasts about four hours and is fairly physically demanding, but we’ll get to that. As I walked up a road away from the town, the sounds of music and people trying to cater to the tourists and of horses’ hooves all began to fade slowly until there was nothing. I was alone walking down the dirt road towards the fog in the distance, and my only company was the sound of my boots on gravel.

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It’s hard to express the bliss of being alone. No friends from the hostel chattering about where they’ve been and where they’re going, no chipper tour guide exploiting his country’s heritage and beauty, no cars whizzing by. The only other living things around me as the skinny palms came into clearer vision through the fog were the quietly grazing horses and cows. I paid a ponchoed man standing under a green tarp something like 3,000 pesos to enter the Valley, and walked slowly over the thick, memory foam-like grass. My mouth hung open and my head tilted back as I marveled at these skyscrapers, swaying slightly at the top and looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss illustration. The cloud in the distance soon became the cloud I was standing in. The mist around me gave me a mystical feeling, and I sat down to meditate in my much-needed solitude.

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I don’t know how everyone meditates, or if I was even doing it right. I sat cross-legged on the damp grass, closed my eyes, and pictured myself as I was, a woman alone in the forest of palm trees. I felt the absence of other people around me, their energies no longer clouding my own. I envisioned the palms towering above me, and imagined that I was the wind that I heard rustling in my ears. I pictured the birds I heard chirping sitting in their nests, and I followed the river that I could hear running in my mind. When I finally opened my eyes, I could no longer see the palms that I had looked at before I began to meditate. The mist was shielding them, but then just as suddenly, those palms appeared before me again, and the cloud moved on.

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I took my time in the forest, making sure to stay near the dirt path while I looped through the trees. I followed grass stairs up which led to more path, going uphill and out of sight, so I continued. It wasn’t until about an hour into my walk, when the landscape started changing to thick woods and clusters of tall skinny, pine-like trees instead of mist and palms, that I realized I was probably doing the trek despite my original intentions. I looked at the map from my hostel. Not only was I doing the hike, but I was doing it backwards. Oh well. There’s supposed to be some waterfalls in here somewhere, I reasoned. It’s probably worth it.

when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
when I started to realize that I was out of the valley and on the hiking trail
map from the hostel and my route
map from the hostel and my route

The ascension was difficult, but doable. Thankfully, I brought enough snacks and water. Soon, the fog was so thick and I was so high up that I couldn’t even see the valley anymore. It took me two hours to make it to the Finca, or farm, on the map. If you’re doing the same trail and come across a locked gate, just climb over it. I don’t know why it’s there.

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the gate you must vault
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the beautiful finca

By the time I got there, I was cursing my genetics. See, I’m a healthy girl. I’m fit enough, but along with gifts of big boobs and curly hair, my mother bestowed upon me the curse of bad hip joints. Every step was agony, so I begged the people at the finca for some form of painkillers and continued onward, or should I say downwards. The path back down the mountain (by this time I realized that I had climbed some small mountain) is steep, rocky and slippery. As I zigzagged down with cautious steps, I immediately picked up a giant walking stick and partnered up with some locals, an incredibly loving couple and their friend, who were very kind and informative about the nature and culture in this part of Colombia.

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Another hour and a half to the bottom, past the same river I had seen on the jeep ride here, over rickety bridges, around pools of mud.

my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
my new friends, carefully making their way down the slippery rocks
me and my walking stick
me and my walking stick
cool, rickety bridge
cool, rickety bridge

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Near the bottom, the rain began to pour. I was lucky I brought my rain jacket that protected my electronics, but I did not fair so well. We came out of the forest part and slipped about on strategically placed rocks and wood, dodging puddles poorly through the Cocora Valley, past a fresh water trout farm, and up another hill to the small town. I never truly knew the meaning of “soaked through to the bone” until that day. My hood was filled with enough water to quench the thirst of three dehydrated men. My shoes were squelching with each step. They didn’t dry for four days. We finally all made it to their car, panting and dripping and laughing. The nice Colombians offered to drive me back to Salento, which I gratefully accepted, and I shivered in the car with yet another smile on my face and another amazing experience under my belt.

last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard
last pic I could take coming out of the woods before the rain came down too hard

 

by Rebecca Bellan